Saturday, December 16, 2017

Beautiful party over for U.S. at World Cup


Shoulder to shoulder we stood, an uncomfortably crowded mass of Americans wearing red, white and blue on our backs, our heads, and in some cases, on our faces.

It was hot. Hot and sticky and steamy.

It was loud, so obnoxiously loud that conversations were often reduced to nods and hand gestures.

It was smelly, a musty blend of booze breath and sweat and half-eaten nachos.

You were bumped and jostled, and there was a decent chance that, at some point, you were going to be splashed with a knocked-over, not-quite-finished can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

There was yelling and out-of-tune singing, a few curse words and those blasted vuvuzelas.

And it — all of it — was beautiful.

This particular scene was at the downtown MacDinton's Irish Pub, but it could have been anywhere Tuesday afternoon that was showing the World Cup soccer match between the United States and Belgium.

All across the globe — from parks in New York City to public squares in Kansas City to stadiums in Chicago to military bases in Afghanistan to any office cubicle with an internet connection — Americans jumped on the bandwagon to cheer on a plucky group of young men that most of us had never even heard of three weeks ago.

In the end, those young men, led by the incredible goal-keeping of New Jersey's Tim Howard, battled and bled and gave everything they had, but it wasn't enough. The Americans lost 2-1 in a match that was as thrilling as it was heartbreaking.

Perhaps the saddest part is that the party has come to an end, that it will be another four years before we do this again. Four years before we truly appreciate the beauty and grace and purity of soccer. But, most regrettably, four years before we share the same sense of national pride.

Maybe Americans don't have the same passion about soccer as the rest of the world, but Tuesday's match brought out the best of America's patriotism.

We sang that national anthem with hands held over our hearts.

American flags were turned into every piece of clothing imaginable — from tank tops to shorts to bandanas. And when all those options were used up, folks simply draped themselves in an actual American flag.

At MacDinton's, one young fan wore a Reagan/Bush '84 hat, but even those who might have voted for Walter Mondale would not have minded. After all, the hat was red, white and blue.

On this day, we weren't blue states or red states, pro-life or pro-choice, Yankees or Red Sox. We were one, and it didn't matter if you were black or white, young or old, male or female, spoke with a Southern drawl or a New England accent, or if English was your first or second language.

We were all the same. We were all Americans.

In fact, it's hard to remember another recent event that produced this kind of communal celebration of our country.

Americans watch the Olympics, but we don't gather to do so. We all watch the Super Bowl, but allegiances are split by those who even have an allegiance.

But the World Cup, at least for a month, turns everyone into a fan — a fan of soccer, a fan of American soccer, and best of all, a fan of America.

And that, you see, is what soccer can do in the United States.

Every four years, we ask if this will finally be the year that soccer explodes in this country, that it becomes as popular here as it is in Germany and Brazil and England. We wonder if, this time, soccer will grow to be on the same level as baseball and basketball and what we call football.

The answer is probably not. Most of us moved on from Tuesday's loss moments after it was over. But here's the question that really matters: Who cares if soccer ever becomes more than a niche sport with a cultlike following in this country?

True soccer fans, those who get up early to watch the English Premier League or stay up late to watch Major League Soccer or cram into sweltering Al Lang Stadium to watch the Rowdies, are free to continue enjoying those leagues and teams. If their neighbors don't come along for the ride, so what? That shouldn't diminish the pleasure soccer fans take in following Lionel Messi or Manchester United or some guy called Kaka.

And as far as the World Cup goes, it isn't going anywhere. In four years, it will be played again. And, we would expect, the United States will be there, trying to climb a little higher on the global ladder of soccer powers.

Maybe most Americans won't be able to name the players. Maybe they still won't know the difference between a corner kick and a free kick. Maybe they couldn't tell you if a hand ball is good or bad.

And maybe they will only rush the bars because it will be a Tuesday afternoon and the perfect excuse to play hooky just to drink beer and sing Ole, Ole, Ole over and over again.

But at least they will be there. Watching a soccer game. Cheering for the United States.

And it will be beautiful.


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